This is what heart looks like!: Nobody was able to get by pacesetter Moreno until very late in the 10-furlong Suburban Handicap (II).
It was good to see ol’ Secretariat again, all aglow in the summer sunshine on Stars and Stripes Day.
I would describe myself as a dedicated racing fan, but in the same breath, mention that I am also a drive-by-myself, full-time floor scrubbin’, just-graduated-from-college kid who drives a duct-taped 1999 Toyota Camry and scoffs at the thought of paying for gas AND the insane bridge tolls in New York. So with that said, I have to pick the days I go to the track wisely where I can get the most bang for my buck, and lucky for me, the inaugural Stars and Stripes Festival repaid me for my efforts.
It’s not commonplace for most U.S. races to attract very many international entries, but the purse sizes of the $1.25 million Belmont Derby Invitational (I), formerly the Jamaica Handicap (I), and the $1 million “Win and You’re In” Belmont Oaks Invitational (I), formerly the Garden City stakes (I), lured a handful of promising three-year-olds from their stomping grounds to Long Island. Attracting just 5 horses last year, the revitalized $500,000 Suburban Handicap (II) drew a full field of routers going the original 10 furlongs again. Even the James Marvin Handicap-turned-$400,000 Belmont Sprint Championship, “just” a G3 status race, beckoned a full field that demanded respect. It was a great day in the making for racing fans, paired with a mystery voucher and T-shirt giveaway and most importantly— food trucks! I’M STILL GROWING! Maybe not any taller, but WIDER!
Almost immediately upon opening the gates to the track, there was a crowd. Not the massively overwhelming type or the type full of drunk college kids— I saw not a single one all day— but a lot of families and racing fans, many of whom seemed to be there for the first time. Between all the food trucks of virtually every taste and texture and the outrageously perfect weather, the atmosphere of the day was sublime.
Sam the Bugler gives a bugling lesson early in the card and took some selfies with the kids
Most important aspect of the day that is impossible to leave out: the racing! For the first time in a while, I had a good betting day at Belmont Park although regretfully I did not wager half as much as I should have since for once, I did not sift through the card beforehand. Lesson learned, I suppose! There was a lot of value plays that panned out for the lucky few and so many excellent performances, some of which I think will go down as very memorable moments:
In the Dwyer (III), which was won last year by my guy Moreno— one of my few and proudest straight trifecta victories!— there was a small group of three-year-olds, offering one of the stiffest opportunities at the betting terminals. Kid Cruz, hot off a sizzling Easy Goer Stakes win a month ago, was the horse to beat, going up against undefeated stablemate Captain Serious and the promising challenger Tiz Dark. In the end, the race set up perfectly for the 3-5 Kid Cruz, who swept in late just as he did in June for another deserving graded stakes win. It was a proud moment again for me, after I had to deal with post-Preakness shame after listing him on top, the only career start of his that he totally blew. Watch out for this closer in the coming months! Final say: Kid Cruz is the real deal! Obviously bad betting race!
I have labeled myself a pretty blah sprint handicapper, and my usual go-to strategy of betting the Speightstown in the race was looking pretty folly as Central Banker, a horse who has grown into his role quite a bit this year, was the likely favorite. The inaugural Belmont Sprint Championship (III) had lots of good horses, but I admit to not really checking it out from a betting perspective. That wound up not being the real draw as the race caught fire in the stretch; Clearly Now came up from off the pace and just plain took off like he was breaking from the gate again, putting some serious daylight between himself and the rest of the horses. I was so flattered and in awe, and it came as no surprise as it was announced that he had broken the track record for 7 furlongs. Amazing. Final say: Clearly Now steals the show! Best performance I’ve seen in a while!
For older horses, the Suburban Handicap (II) welcomed back the 10-furlong distance much to the delight of traditionally-minded handicappers, with 11 horses entered, with many stretching out from a mile or taking the next step up from the overplayed 9-furlong distance. I’ve long had eyes and heart for Moreno, who broke wonderfully with the blinkers back on and set out to set a very modest pace out on the lead. The son of Ghostzapper held off challenges that came early and late, ultimately falling in the final moments of the stretch to the deep closer Zivo. A 5-year-old bred in New York and trained by Chad Brown, the heart displayed by Zivo did not mar the tough beat that was handed to Moreno. I hope to see a lot more from this gun show, but he certainly won’t be overlooked by anyone again. Betting-wise, I stayed out of this one yet again, sensing an upset somehow but not knowing who it would be; Last Gunfighter always seems to drop the ball in big graded races and I’ve never liked Romansh. (On a side note, Zivo was that type of horse you see at long odds and wonder what was wrong, what you weren’t immediately seeing that you should have. Bettors failed themselves in this race at 13-1!) Final say: Great race with terrifically gutsy top two! Wish I had show-betted Moreno after all. Aw well, I think Saratoga will be kind to him.
Considered the highlight of the day despite its non-“Win and You’re In” status, the Belmont Derby (I) attracted some classy Euro shippers to fight the American contingent, which featured the prominent speed demon Bobby’s Kitten. Aidan O’Brien’s Adelaide [GB] was the deserving favorite but had some serious challengers in the form of Gailo Chop, Flamboyant [FR], and Pornichet [FR]. The morning line favoritism fell to poly specialist Toast of New York, who’d be getting another shot on the turf after initially failing on it in his debut, off of which he blossomed into a different horse. With so many shippers, it was reasonable to forget about the Americans… but to such disregarding odds, it was unfathomable. The tempo of the Derby built up to a raucous stretch drive with multiple horses flying late; Adelaide’s patient stalking position gave way to a flurried flight to the front, but he was not alone— storming up the rail came the black silks and cherry cap of the Phipps Stable. Mr Speaker! The connections of Toast of New York could be heard down along the rail, “COME ON, JAMIE [OSBOURNE]! COME ON JAMIE!” But the race turned from a scrambled stretch drive to a duel between two, and in a determined final rush, it was Mr Speaker who ebbed and yawed his way through to win. Considered a potential major player earlier in the year, Mr Speaker captured G1 status that day at an unfathomable 23-1 odds, paying out $49 to his supporters for a $2 win wager. Final say: Holy cow Mr Speaker! I dare not compare him to Point of Entry, but he was so game!
The final stake of the afternoon, which would invite its victor to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in November, was the first-ever Belmont Oaks (I). Considered the easier of the two big turf races by many handicappers, who were mainly leading toward Euro entry Wonderfully [IRE], it was still a very wide-open affair, especially considering the major upset in the Derby. If I liked anyone in the field, it had to be the beautiful Flying Jib by looks and Sea Queen by virtue of her Christophe Clement connections (although Clement had another filly by Arch in Summer Solo). Again, it was the American turf trainers who showed the way on their home course— Coolmore’s Chad Brown-trained filly Minorette, who packed a wicked turf pedigree, flew courageously to the front late and went eyeball-to-eyeball with the always game Sea Queen. It was a scintillating show that paired with the Belmont Derby like a fine wine, each with the top two boxing it out at the end. Longshot and previously undefeated Summer Solo hashed out the trifecta for a day the Americans joyfully dominated. Final say: We’ll get ‘em next time, Sea Queen! Minorette the deserving, good-looking winner!
I am so annoyed at myself for not doing my homework a little more on the races, which I strongly feel I would have won more on if I had chosen to handicap them beforehand like I almost always do— by nature, I always put down Lezcano-ridden turf horses as well as Clement and Brown horses regardless of surface. But also by law, if I don’t do my homework beforehand, I don’t typically allow myself to bet. I found out too late that Minorette is a half-sister to an old favorite of mine, Master of Hounds. Ugh! I gotta get it together for Saratoga! I can’t complain too much though, since I still managed to profit off that free $5 voucher I got from attending the races, mostly thanks to the 10-1 Michael Matz horse who won race 1.
On the drive home, many questions surfaced: how good did my photos come out? Is traffic on I-91 going to be bad with the holiday rush? And most importantly, how good did Belmont do with today? I begged the racing gods that the Stars and Stripes went very well for the business end of the sport, and it appears that prayer has been answered with some 11,000 in attendance with more than $18 million wagered.
If you didn’t get to go to this event, do try to make it next year! It beat out most other NYRA days I’ve attended since I started going in 2012 and even many Saratoga days. Next time I will surely do my homework…